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This Week in D&D
Feats and Skills and Options, Oh My!
Mike Mearls

L ast week, I wrote about feats and our change in philosophy regarding them. This week, it's time to talk about feats, skills, classes, and how this all fits together.

Back at the beginning of the year, I wrote about the different layers of the game. I also shared our two core goals. Here they are:

  1. Create a version of D&D that embraces the enduring, core elements of the game.
  2. Create a set of rules that allows a smooth transition from a simple game to a complex one.

Feats, skills, and classes all fit together at the nexus of meeting these goals. As I wrote last week, we're merging paragon paths and prestige classes into feats. That change makes what I'm about to talk about much easier for us to manage as we work on the game.

It's easy to argue that feats, skills, and character customization haven't always been a big part of D&D. We don't need them to embrace the core of the game, and removing them would make it easier and faster to make a character. It also gives DMs less to track. Our easiest solution here is to create the option to play without them.

On the other hand, people do like customizing their characters with mechanical choices. They also want different levels of complexity. If we completely cut out feats and skills, that might cause us to miss our second goal.

Thus, we hit upon the core, central conflict in the design. How do you make the same game work for players and groups who might be very, very different? It's a question that requires a few steps to address.

Containing Complexity: Feats

To start with, we need to contain the game's shifting complexity in as small a footprint as possible. We settled on feats, because we could define a feat's value as worth +1 to an ability score. Applying +1 to a score is a fairly simply operation with clear, useful value to a player. On top of that, adding +1 to an even ability score doesn't have an actual effect on a character but still gives a player a sense of progress.

As an aside, whenever possible we give feats alongside another incremental improvement. For instance, a rogue's feats can come in alongside an improvement to sneak attack damage. A caster gains a feat alongside more spells. We don't rely on a feat to carry the entire load of goodies you receive for leveling. We can keep complexity low by pairing them with other incremental benefits.

In the basic rules, players see only the option to improve an ability score. This rule places further emphasis on the abilities. It also scoops up all the passive, simple feats that have appeared in the past. We don't need to give a +1 bonus to attack rolls, damage rolls, or saves, because the ability bonuses include those.

We don't want to make any assumptions about increased ability scores with leveling. There are two reasons for this. First, that would turn the ability increases into another tax. Second, we're mindful that not everyone who wants to make an attack will max out Strength or Dexterity. A melee character should feel comfortable about boosting Charisma or Constitution for story reasons or personal preference. A choice isn't a choice if there's only one assumed, correct answer.

Finally, this approach allows us to use feats to shoulder a lot of the load in shifting complexity. Powers, special attacks, minor spellcasting, expertise at sneaking or interaction, and so forth can live inside of feats. This approach allows us to deliver on the idea of players picking the type of character they want to play and building toward that. Someone who wants to make the most complex character can play alongside someone running the simplest character imaginable. A DM doesn't need to make any special considerations or changes to how he or she creates adventures or manages the game.

So, in summary, feats allow us to isolate complexity, give it a clear definition in terms of power and effect, and create a highly variable pool of abilities to choose from. Prestige classes, paragon paths, and any option that we see as something that any character should be able to select rest here. The lack of an exact story definition of feats is a feature, not a bug.

Skills and Backgrounds: A DM's Tool

Our attention now turns to skills. If feats are where we're containing complexity, where does that leave skills?

Up to this point, we used backgrounds as a way to deliver skills. We've determined, though, that skills as a situational bonus have run into a few challenges.

  • The idea of a static, increasing numerical bonus runs counter to our aim to prevent bonus inflation.
  • The skills are awkward at the table. Some DMs still ask for a "Spot check" or other named skill. Veteran players know what that means, but new players are lost. They might not have a Spot skill anywhere on their character sheets. We'd like the DM to only ever worry about asking for an ability check.
  • The skill die mechanic really doesn't address either point. It reins in the bonus somewhat, but people who like skills find it isn't big enough. It also does nothing to address awkwardness at the table, since DMs still need to be clear about what kind of check they are looking for.

Playtest feedback shows people have been really happy with skills as part of a background. Their open-ended nature and flexibility have proven popular. So, how do we handle this?

To start with, we're making skills completely optional. They are a rules module that combines the 3E and 4E systems that DMs can integrate into their game if they so desire. If you use the full skill system, we expect that you'll ask for a Perception check rather than a Wisdom check to spot a hidden monster. We can also allow skills to give you a steadily improving, static bonus. If the DM opts to use the skill system, he or she just needs to keep in mind how it affects DCs. A DM can change DCs, or just use the standard ones and accept that characters will succeed more often.

Backgrounds now give you a set of options that capture the key, interesting benefits that have proven popular. They are broken down into a few categories:

Areas of knowledge give you a +10 bonus to Intelligence checks made to recall lore about a subject. This bonus does not improve with level. By baking this into the system, we can present it to DMs as an exception to the basic rule of always asking for an ability check. The list of areas will be fairly limited to make it easy to manage.

We're making this an exception to our general approach to skills because there will always be a divide between what characters can and should know about the world and what players might remember. This mechanic allows us to directly address that.

For instance, let's say the characters are journeying to Waterdeep. The players might not know much about the city because they haven't read much Forgotten Realms lore. We can assume that every character in the world of the Realms knows some level of info about Waterdeep. The area of knowledge system presents a list of Waterdeep lore that everyone knows, and it includes information available at DC 10, 20, and 30 Intelligence checks. It allows DMs to be more permissive in sharing what should be common lore, while also giving clear guidelines in how best to share more obscure lore. The bonus means that anyone with the appropriate area of knowledge automatically hits the DC 10 knowledge and has a good chance of reaching DC 20. DC 30 is tricky but possible for characters with a high Intelligence score.

Proficiencies extend beyond weapons and armor to cover a wide range of things. You can become proficient in thieves' tools, blacksmith's tools, sailing ships, musical instruments, and so on. A simple prerequisite system combines with our ability check system to make it easy to manage things such as forging a sword or sailing a ship using only ability checks.

For instance, let's say the characters want to sail a ship across a lake. Only a character with proficiency in sailing can attempt some of the Dexterity, Intelligence, and Strength checks needed to guide the boat. We don't need to rely on skills to deliver that, but instead a simple proficiency that says you know how to do something. It also means that we can be fairly clear about what checks need special training without using the entire skill system.

For clarity's sake, we'll note in published adventures if a check requires a special proficiency. The proficiencies will also be fairly broad. For example, a watercraft proficiency covers all boats and ships.

Benefits (the name is a placeholder for now) extend to all the other things that your background might give you. A noble has access to powerful people and better accommodations. A sage always knows where to look for information that he or she can't recall off the top of her head. A merchant speaks several languages and can find cheap, mundane goods.

These abilities are flavorful additions to your character that help give your character more options in dealing with noncombat situations. They are the connections, ties, and tricks that you picked up before becoming an adventurer.

Classes

Finally, we come to classes. Our classes are designed with the assumption that you are using the ability bonuses in place of feats and aren't using skills. Therefore, they need to be complete on their own. A bonus feat can't replace the core abilities that a class gains.

For most classes, the changes will be largely cosmetic or a simple rearrangement of what you've already seen. The fighter and rogue bolster the choices and options presented within them, adding more class-specific features. In addition, they both feature choices similar to a wizard's tradition and a cleric's deity. We've had these before, but now we're giving them more teeth.

For instance, a fighter might choose between knight and gladiator. The knight is skilled in heavy armor, courtly manner, and mounted combat. This bold fighter seizes the initiative and can protect allies from harm. The gladiator trains with a variety of exotic weapons and excels at finding and exploiting an opponent's weaknesses or mistakes.

Since the rogue and fighter have traditionally presented simple options, we can easily create a choice that focuses on ease of use and clearly understood features for the basic game.

The idea behind this move is to make sure that we are creating abilities and identities for the fighter and rogue that stand out. Those classes have been fairly generic for much of D&D's history. We want to preserve some of that feel—fighters and rogues gain more ability increases/feats than other classes to make them more flexible—but we're also mindful of the need to make sure we don't sell them short.

In Summary

As you can see, our process is fairly complex and involves keeping several lines of design moving at once. At times, things can seem muddy or confused, but we've been keeping a careful eye on directing this entire process with our major goals intact. I'm confident that, with this plan in place, we can deliver on our two major goals for the game.

This is a long column, so here's a condensed version of the goals for abilities, feats, skills, and backgrounds that I discussed above:

  • All characters gain a +1 bonus to an ability score of their choice at various levels, depending on the class.
  • You can trade a +1 bonus to an ability score for a feat if your group uses feats.
    • In other words, feats are optional and don't appear in the basic game.
  • Skills are an optional system that your DM might want to use.
    • Skills are optional and don't appear in the basic game.
  • Backgrounds give out a combination of areas of knowledge, proficiencies with tools and objects, and special benefits.
    • An area of knowledge is a situational, +10 bonus to Intelligence checks.
    • A proficiency indicates you know how to use an item.
    • The unique benefits are social connections, tricks, and other abilities.
Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.
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